Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Way Out West, part 2

Montana's plains and rolling hills became even more rolling. We could see distant mountains dotted with snow. (It had snowed in Yellowstone two nights before.) (Yes, it was August.) Suddenly we were in beautiful Paradise Valley, where the Yellowstone River twisted and turned. So lovely and peaceful!

After a while of following the river we started going up and up. Around a hairpin turn was the famous archway entrance to Yellowstone. There was Ft. Yellowstone (now being used by the Park Service), a rest area, and Mammoth Hot Springs.
I'd been to Yellowstone back in the 5th grade, when the family was stationed in ND. I recalled being almost traumatized by the stench of sulfur. This trip, the sulfur didn't seem to overwhelm the senses for some reason. And of course, back then tourists were encouraged to feed the bears, so they'd come right up to the cars and beg. Around 1972 or so, Yellowstone made the decision to keep the bears wild, and they closed dumps, installed bear-proof garbage cans, made it illegal to feed the bears, etc. They lost a lot of bears that first year, but since then things have been fine. And you don't go NEAR a bear.

Mt. Rushmore had been hard on my knees with its uneven surfaces, but all the stairs at Yellowstone made the situation worse. Everything seems to be UP. And those few things that are down seem to require a greater number of stairs to go back UP to your original position. My knees were not happy, especially the left one. (Now that I'm back home, especially after I've been through a bout of post-vacation plague and was bed-ridden for a day, ye knees are happy again.)

You have to stay on the walkways (which are constructed by workers who wear extremely insulated gear and use thermal-detection equipment) because there are horror stories of people who didn't.

One we heard a lot was about two California men, who'd arrived with a pickup and a large dog in the back. They got off at one of the boiling springs (we'd see the site the next day), and the dog, who was not tethered, decided to join them and take a swim. Splash!

One of the men (not the dog's owner) automatically jumped in to save the dog. The crowd managed to hold the owner back. The dog died, of course, but the one man hung on for one more day in hospital at Salt Lake City. "Guess that was a stupid thing to do," were his last words.

I yelled at some young Japanese tourists for getting off the walkway to take their selfies. I mean, there were signs everywhere to stay on the walks!

The elk didn't read. We saw several there moseying around Ft. Yellowstone, right up around the sidewalks. Later we'd see occasional animal tracks through various hot springs, and once saw a bird hopping around one, seemingly undisturbed. There was one visitors' center that had a picture of a bison with all four legs badly burned, walking up a road with a grizzly stalking him, just waiting for him to stumble.

Our step-on guide (a local expert; most bus companies will have one or two during the course of a tour) on the second day lived in the park in an RV trailer. She could have used the dorms the park has for its other employees, but she and her husband own a dog, and animals are not allowed in the dorms. The first day she ever camped at Yellowstone, her neighbor warned her to keep her small dog on a very short leash instead of the retractable leash she had, because coyotes were known to rush out of nowhere and grab small dogs, never to be seen again.

We saw a coyote trotting across the street when we got to our hotel.

But before that, we drove the Yellowstone roads. Top speed is 45 MPH, often reduced. Our tour director, whom we're calling "Tom" here, told us we were lucky because it was August 25, and that was the day Yellowstone employees at the Old Faithful Inn and elsewhere celebrated Christmas, since they weren't employed at the park when Christmas actually rolled around. So at our rest stop at lunch, the employees in the diner I ate at (meh food; huge crowd) all had Christmas hats on. When we got to the Inn, there was a Christmas tree in addition to the hats. Santa showed up later, and employees handed out cookies to the kids. Sound systems in both places were Christmas tunes. Fa la la!

We had also timed things right because the next week, work would begin on a tiny bridge across Isa Lake, which would require a 2 1/2 hour detour. Isa is a pond, really, covered in lilypads, and is the only natural lake in the world that drains into two oceans backward. It sits right on the continental divide, and the eastern outlet winds around to ultimately flow to the Pacific, while the western outlet winds to flow to the Atlantic Ocean. The lake was named for a pretty, rich young lady whom the discoverer happened to spot as he was trying to figure out a name for the place. Typical. (Hmph.)

Back to the driving. At both ends of the park I had to notice that we passed sheer drop-offs. Luckily, most of them seemed to be off the left side, and I was seated on the right. But for 20 minutes I had to cover my eyes because we were hanging over the side of the road on the right. There were no guard rails that I could see. A lady on the bus said thank goodness for that, because they'd probably mess up the view. !

Tom noted that snow guides were up, when they hadn't been the previous week. These are 6- or 8-foot poles with reflective tops that line the roads, and are to tell snow plows where the roads should be when the snow arrives. "Yes, it gets that deep," Tom told us.

Yellowstone isn't the most-visited US park, but it's #2 or #3. It gets MILLIONS of visitors a year, and the vast majority of them arrive during the three snow-less months. There were always crowds, but surprisingly, it was never too bad.

Get this: HALF of the entire WORLD's geothermal features are in Yellowstone!

We saw Yellowstone Falls, which are twice as high as Niagara. (It seems EVERYTHING's higher than Niagara! Niagara must have a great press agent. On the Canadian side.) When we got back from the photo stop, one of the women complained that she'd been trying to take a picture when two newly-arrived Japanese tourists DEMANDED that she move aside so they could shoot. I saw this happen a lot. Hey, aren't American tourists supposed to be the rude ones? Folks, always remember to be polite, especially when you're in large groups of tourists!

Then we went through the Lamar Valley, where it was bison mating season. Dozens and dozens of bison! They seemed just to be hanging around. Getting that final cigarette in, you know. We spotted one that people said was dead (he could have been asleep for all I knew), and we surmised that he had given his all in mating. The next week would be the beginning of elk mating season, and the valley would be filled with them, or so we were told. I noticed that the bison usually chose to appear nearby on the opposite side of the bus from where I was. (Okay, the next day they chose my side so I got some neat pics of them, but these pics have the picturesque river in them.)
Note: Tom said it is illegal to pull over and stop in the park unless an animal is actually blocking your way. (Traffic slows to a snail's pace when drivers detect wildlife to be seen/photographed. You see slowed traffic ahead; you start to look around for what they're gawking at.) He said that one herd of bison had been using a highway pass as a shortcut the previous week, and traffic had been held up for hours in either direction, affecting almost all the park's schedules. If you do get a traffic ticket in the park, be aware that this is federal property, and thus fines are MUCH higher than state fines would be. (Don't worry about pulling off too much, as there are a lot of "photo opportunity" pull-offs.)

Things smoke in Yellowstone. You can't take in a vista without seeing a cloud of steam rising somewhere. There are mud pots and hot springs and geysers, etc. This one above happens to roar like a dragon as the steam comes out of it. Plus our guide told us that with all the small earthquakes Yellowstone produces (since it does sit on top of a super volcano, and the main part of the Park sits within the old caldera), the fissures that allow all the geothermal activity can shift around. Huge, periodic geysers have been shut off by Mother Nature, like the Excelsior Geyser. Roads have had to have been moved because a hot spot shifted and melted the pavement. We heard of one night when park employees were skinny-dipping in a warm natural pool in the moonlight, and Yellowstone had a fairly large earthquake. The pool emptied in moments, leaving them sitting there in their altogether!

(Which reminds me: if you're visiting Yellowstone on your own, take advantage of the tours that are offered by knowledgeable guides. Some of them last all day, and you ride around in vintage vehicles. You'll learn a lot more than you would on your own.)

One of the things that surprised me was that in this huge park, which has so very many visitors, the visitor center we went to had very few displays that functioned properly. You pushed the button for the little show, and nothing happened. I think only two of the displays were functioning. How disappointing! Especially since most of the displays were about super volcanoes! Yeek! (I noted that predicted ash from the next big blowup would NOT directly affect Portland, OR, which is high on my retirement possibilities list. Mt. St. Helens was also on the map, and I noted that ash patterns went east, not west. Whew!) Super volcanoes are fascinating to study, but seriously frightening to consider.

We visited Yellowstone Lake, which is one of the larger lakes mumble mumble, I forget, but it's big. Okay, Wiki sez: "Yellowstone Lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in North America." The hotel there (besides being our rest stop) was quite nice. A ship once sank in the middle of the lake, and there are tours that will take you out there to see it.

Then it was off to our accommodations for the next two nights: the Old Faithful Inn. Tom told us that a room cost around $400/night (wrong! It's just under that for 2 nights; I just looked it up), and that staying here took up the majority of the cost of our trip.

I might suggest staying elsewhere.

Sure, the decor of the main part of the hotel is colorful with all its timbers and huge fireplace, etc. But there's no wifi, radio or even TV, as they say they want to keep things rustic. (Okay, I think none of the accommodations in the park have these things.) The lobby is often filled with pandemonium: kids and tourists running, yelling, stopping suddenly, taking pictures…

We were put in the west wing, which is a more modern wing in that it has private bathrooms. I was wondering why the second floor in the main section had a public bathroom as I wandered down the hall one morning, when I realized it was the one the guests used. There were showers in the back (though not in the one on the first floor). At decent morning getting-ready-for-the-day times, it must be PACKED. The one time I used it, a woman brushing her teeth over one sink refused to let me get twenty seconds worth of water to wash my hands.

Let's see. Two showers, three stalls, two sinks, a BUNCH of guests wanting to use same...

But I had a private bath. When you turned on the bathroom light, the fan came on as well, sounding like a semi truck idling. The ice machine across the hall was a trifle quieter. My mattress was lumpy, you couldn't control the temperature in the room (even with the window open and temps approaching the 30s outside, it was stifling!), and the light bulbs were about 10W. I had to go down to the desk to ask for a reading lamp, which was supposed to have been there already. The tub was incredibly slippery. It had a grab bar at the opposite end of where you needed it, and there was no traction or mat in the thing. I showered as quickly as I could, fearing for my very life!

"Rustic" is one thing, but...

We were told that the inn's restaurant was booked 9 months in advance, but that Tom (the self-proclaimed greatest tour director in the world) had booked tables for us that far ahead, as he did for all his tours. So I tried it out. They have a limited menu and I ordered the bison pot roast and roasted root veggies with a salad, because I didn't trust the other items on the menu to be all that fresh. Yes, I'm paranoid. The salad never arrived, but it didn't show up on the bill, either. The couple I ate with were really, really picky (yes, pickier than me!), so in this expensive restaurant with its fancy food the woman finally settled on only the pea soup. She bullied her husband into the same thing (but he had a sundae as dessert once he saw I was ordering the same. He had the large; I had the small.). Then she complained about the color of the soup. That they didn't get more crackers. That the prices were so high (hey, lady, we had a chance to look over the menu before accepting our reservations, and the prices were on it), that the restaurant was so noisy. (It was. You couldn't hear yourself think!) (I saw a review on Travelocity the other day that came to the same conclusions and said the restaurant at the Snow Lodge was by far a better choice.)

(We had a number of couples where the wives seemed to direct their husbands' actions, and the men let themselves be led. Otherwise I don't think they could have fed themselves, looked in the proper direction, or whatever. Is this a matter of couples' pairing personality-wise, or it is age? The couples that were like this were very old.)

And of course the next day—which thank GOD was our "free afternoon"—the dinner hit me like a cannon. It didn't help that I'd just finished my final round of pills the day before. I ran to my room and its private bathroom and UGH! was sick for most of the afternoon. Seriously sick. I had scheduled to do my laundry that afternoon (over at the Snow Lodge, which is one of the two other hotels in that location. The Snow Lodge also has wifi available for a price in its lobby), and found the public rest rooms over there. My apologies, Snow Lodge guests. By the time laundry was done my GI tract was feeling faintly human again. After some ice cream at a local shoppe, it said it might be ready for dinner in a couple hours.

Note: bring your own laundry supplies. The laundry room was out of everything, and the manager and staff were frantic and embarrassed by the oversight. (Of course I'd brought my own.)

Dinner that night was at the deli in the Inn, with pre-made food. DEE-licious! I had the ham 'n cheese croissant, serious yum!, with a pre-made salad. Later I talked with the people behind the coffee bar on the second floor, and the one confided that once he got back to civilization, it took about two weeks for the sulfur smell to come off. "My friends tell me I smell like sulfur," he said. "Do I really?"

"Probably." That morning at our breakfast buffet I'd taken my plate back to my table and was all set to dig into what looked like delicious fare. But one sniff and all I could smell was sulfur. (I'm allergic to sulfa. Could that have played into my illness?) (Ah. Google says it's impossible for a human being to have an allergy to sulfur.)

That night I joined some others in our group on the extensive balcony that faces Old Faithful. During the day, people sit on the east-facing benches there and watch. I noticed that quite a few (Americans, not Japanese) spread their junk all over the benches so others couldn't sit there. "My husband's coming back any minute," they'd say, and you never saw any husband. They just didn't want to sit next to strangers.

When I got back to my room I recalled that I'd wanted to stargaze here since there'd be no city lights. I peeked out my window for an advance view and saw… Bats. Lots and lots of bats, careening everywhere just inches right outside my window. It was an omen! There'd be no stargazing. Brr!

But the hotel's main draw is that it's right next to Old Faithful. It has clocks in the lobby that tell you when the next scheduled eruption is, and you add and subtract 10 minutes to that, because OF doesn't run on any clock. It's just approximately every 90 minutes.

 We'd noticed the crowds gathering when we'd first arrived, and I got to the main viewing spot just as OF took off. Wow! Then later I just happened to be strolling about, noticed the crowds, and meandered over just in time. Finally I caught it at sunset, with the last rays of the sun catching just the top of the steam cloud.
The next day dawned, well, not exactly foggy, but clouds were lying on top of the trees. Guess that's fog. Okay, it was foggy, and added to the general steaminess of Yellowstone, things were pretty pea-soup. We visited a number of geothermal features, almost feeling our way along the boardwalks. We discovered that when pools are a lovely shade of blue, that means the water is too hot to support any life. When you see other colors, the water is still darned hot, but certain algae can live in it.

Ah! The clouds lifted around noon to make a beautiful day! And just in time to see Gibbon Falls, which falls over the rim of Yellowstone into its caldera. Gorgeous! I took a million pictures; let's see how many paintings I can get out of them.

Yellowstone: Beautiful landscapes. Mysterious and sometimes frightening landscapes. We didn't see that much wildlife, but I'm told that lots of people do. It's the luck of the draw of which week you get there.

Next time: the rest of the trip: Grand Tetons! Jackson! Salt Lake City! Casper, WY! And even Denver!

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